Ryan Nivens '10

Hometown: Kingston Springs, TN
Major: History
Minor: International Studies
Senior Study Title: “The Evolution of Franco-American Relations in the 20th Century”
Advisor: Dr. Dan Klingensmith

Thesis Abstract

“Freedom Fries” got Ryan Nivens '10 thinking.

Nivens was a high school student in Kingston Springs, Tenn., when, in 2003, Republican leaders made a public declaration that French Fries were to be renamed “Freedom Fries” in all three House office buildings following France's condemnation of the United States' plans to invade Iraq.

The public taunting of each country really made an impact on Nivens, and his curiosity went into high gear. Already a history buff who had studied the French Revolution independently, he paid close attention to the diplomatic efforts of both the U.S. and France during that time period.

For the most part, the two countries are friends and allies, but the relationship is strained, Nivens said. When the time came for him to choose a Senior Study topic, he was drawn to the history of Franco-American relations because it also incorporated coursework from his minor, International Studies.

At the beginning of the project, Nivens wanted to find out what the U.S.' current status is in relation to France, but remembering the “Freedom Fries” incident, he decided to look at the evolution of the countries' relations and why the two governments have become estranged over time.

Franco-American relations date back to the Revolutionary War. Without the support of France, the United States' defeat of the English would have been highly improbable. And then there's the Statue of Liberty – a symbol of freedom and democracy given to the people of the U.S. from French citizens. So what occurred in the 20th Century that has created tension between the two sister countries? That was the primary question Nivens wanted to explore.

Dr. Daniel Klingensmith, associate professor of history, said he was excited to work with Nivens, as they share a common interest in 19th and 20th Century French history.

“It was a natural fit for both of us, and I was really excited to see what types of answers Ryan would discover,” the associate professor said, adding that he added to his own knowledge of the topic while advising Nivens.

Specifically, Klingensmith said that he always thought the conflict came after World War II, and his advisee showed him a great deal of the complications and misunderstandings between the two countries were already present.

Nivens' 110-page study not only pinpoints events that have had a negative impact on Franco-American relations but puts to rest preconceived notions that he believes have plagued this relationship for decades and have hindered true understanding of why each side acted as it did.

“From a modern perspective, it seems to be a diplomatic Rubix cube,” Nivens wrote in this study. “However, if we are to step back about a century and look at the gradual evolution of relations, we can begin to notice a series of trends which shed new light onto the situation we have now.”

Chapter one focuses on the evolution of relations from 1914 until 1945, which covers the outbreak of World War I through the conclusion of World War II and how the two countries interacted with one another during times of crisis.

Chapter two shows the development of relations during the Cold War, which caused the two nations to find themselves in different global positions – the U.S. in first place, and France in a decline and feeling embittered.

The final chapter deals with the1990's to present day and shows how the current series of relations are a product of not only the current values of each nation but how historical events have shaped their values and each nation's opinion of each other.

For his Senior Study, Nivens relied heavily on Tony Juett's book, Post War; a History of Europe since 1945, and Henry Kissinger's writings on diplomacy. He had hoped to locate more personal sources such as letters, journals and other such accounts, but he found precious few.

Nearly 60 sources are cited in his study, however. Klingensmith was impressed by Nivens' commitment to finding and researching so much relevant information. He studied wars, treaties, organizations and diplomats.

“I think he brings a great deal of energy to a question he is interested in,” Klingensmith said. “The amount of work Ryan put into this project was above and beyond, as most history thesis projects are typically 50-60 pages. Ryan's research and development was very thorough.

“For professors, it is fun to see a student formulate ideas and then go out to investigate,” he continued, pointing out that the Senior Study requirement gives students the opportunity to read great works of literature and discover other scholarly sources they may have never experienced otherwise.

Nivens said he was proud that Klingensmith had recommended his Senior Study for the permanent library collection. He has a lot of respect for his advisor and describes him as “a mentor, a friend, an expert with vast knowledge of both 19th and 20th Century history, and someone that I could just pop in his office and bounce an idea around with.

“He was, and still is, here for me and he truly wants me to reach my highest potential,” the MC student said.

That potential is taking Nivens to the University of Chicago, where he's been accepted into the Master of Arts Program in Social Sciences. When he enrolls, he'll be following in the footsteps of his advisor. Klingensmith earned both master's and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Chicago.

“I am really excited about the program because it makes it easier to mix both my interests by combining history with political science,” Nivens said.